Insistence of a dream vs. resistance of a society The story of a Lebanese Muslim female scriptwriter
Niam recalls the nights in which her head bumped into mom’s sewing machine every time she tried to get up from her mattress in the mid 1980s. She has managed, however, to make it from that small room, which she shared with her three sisters in a rented house in Beirut, to a fancy bedroom in a private apartment at the faculty housing at Hollins University in Virginia today.
Today, my sister Niam Itani is a peace activist, who craves to show the world through her scripts that war is but the source of endless social problems. Niam’s writings focus on social issues, particularly relating to the effects of war on vulnerable groups in society (i.e., children, women, etc.). Yet, a glimpse of Niam’s life journey is much more touching than any of her scripts, for she faced many challenges to be the empowered woman she is today.
She was born in 1980, two years ahead the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, as the third daughter of a lower middle class Muslim couple. The invasion, along with the 1989 civil war in Lebanon, has tremendously impacted her life. War dominated the young child’s life and she feared everything that reminded her of the dark nights when they used to flee to the shelter, with the ambience of scared humans and loud raids. Today, Niam’s adoption of ‘peace’ as a cause is but a further reflection of her childhood experience in a war zone.
Niam was raised in a conservative atmosphere, stemming both from the religiosity of the family and the critical situation in the country. Niam and her siblings were rarely allowed to visit friends or attend birthday parties. “As children we were discouraged from watching television, and there was shortage of electric current, so reading filled our leisure time,” Niam recalls. Stories were thus major companions for Niam in her childhood, whether those she read herself or those she heard from her grandmother. The kids also never went to the cinema, although they would buy films and play them at home under their mom’s supervision. It was until 2005 that Niam first went to a movie theater to watch a film.
As a teenager, Niam wore the veil herself for religious reasons just like everyone around her did. Later on, she gradually associated her identity with it and the veil became a crucial part of her self-perception.
As Niam received her official Lebanese baccalaureate in 1997, she faced her first challenge: to pursue an arts major in university. Such a choice was not expected of her and was not socially appealing. Thus, family and relatives urged Niam to pursue a scientific major. The choice of the major ‘Radio/TV/Film’ was condemned but Niam’s parents did not stop her from pursuing the major she chose. Niam asserts, “my mother has always been supportive and she is my first line of defense in all the hard times I passed through.”
Due to the nature of the program, Niam started returning home late, some days not until midnight or 1 a.m. That was another red line the young lady crossed, for she was rarely allowed out alone in the daytime before her university experience. Then came the scriptwriting course that made Niam discover her passion. “I fell in love with filmmaking and started thinking then about doing an MFA,” Niam explains. Of the universities recommended by her scriptwriting instructor, Niam only could afford to pay the application fee of the New York University. In another courageous step, she secretly applied to the program and was accepted. Yet, Niam’s parents were unable to pay the tuition fees and could not allow her to travel alone at the age of 19.
Niam did not find a suitable career in her field upon graduation, in light of the discrimination against veiled applicants in Lebanon at many institutions. She spent a year living home exploring the filming field in the Arab world, hoping to find a scholarship for arts majors. Then, she hesitatingly enrolled in a masters program in education, at the suggestion of her parents.
Developments then occurred in Niam’s professional and emotional life. On the professional level, Niam met a director who recommended her to the head of a local production company. This marked the beginning of Niam’s professional filmmaking career. On an emotional level, Niam fell in love with a young man she met online. Niam convinced her parents to get to know him personally, and they hesitatingly approved her engagement. However, family pressure and Mohammad being of a different nationality forced the couple to end their engagement. Meanwhile, to this day, there are no laws in Lebanon that guarantee Lebanese women’s transmission of nationality to their husbands or children.
About the same time of her emotional distress, the company where Niam worked selected her to attend a training sessions at AlJazeera Center for Training and Development in Doha, Qatar. “A few months later, AlJazeera Satellite Channel invited me to attend a second special training session then sent a job offer to me,” Niam recalls. This time, Niam’s parents did not mind that she travels to live and work by herself in Qatar. “Deep down I felt that my parent’s approval was kind of compensation of my breakup with my fiancé,” Niam expressed. Moreover, the atmosphere at AlJazeera was not at odds with the family’s conservative context. Niam moved from a university program where she was the only veiled student, and where she used to sneak to an isolated space to pray, to an institution that hired veiled employees, and, to Niam’s surprise, “had a prayer room!”
Niam worked hard for five years at AlJazeera, spending as few holidays and saving as much of her salary as possible. This was in accordance with her plan to pursue her dream and do her MFA. She finally enrolled in a low-residency MFA program in 2008. After receiving her MFA from Hollins University in 2010, there was no further reason to stay at AlJazeera Channel. It was time to passionately advance in the career she independently chose for herself: to write and direct her own films.
Niam submitted a script she wrote, ‘Super.Full’, to the Doha Film Institute. Niam wrote the script earlier in a scriptwriting lab in Zanzibar, and it received the best screenplay award at that workshop. The institute thus sponsored the making of the film, and so Niam shot her short film in Qatar before resettling in Beirut in November 2010. She then submitted the film to different film festivals worldwide, until it first featured at the Seattle International Film Festival. Later on, ‘Super.Full’ played in many other film festivals and was selected as a finalist in ‘Your Film Festival’ competition that was presented by YouTube and Fly Emirates last summer. From over 15,000 entries from around the world, ‘Super.Full’ made it to the ten finalists of the competition and played at the prestigious Venice Film Festival. “Super.Full is a film about a very poor couple living in a very rich city,” Niam comments, adding that the piece builds on juxtaposition between poor and rich, money and happiness.
Today, Niam is working on a feature film inspired by her own experience of the recurrent wars in Lebanon, ‘Shadow of a Man’. She is concurrently working on a feature documentary about children in war ‘Twice Upon a Time’, and collaborating on another film about women & children in war in Sudan. These films will be released by ‘placeless films’, a film consultation company she founded recently in Lebanon. While you are reading this, Niam is in Hollins teaching a graduate Film Production course, after two years of instructing experience in scriptwriting at her undergraduate institution, the Lebanese American University.
Niam followed her dream and, best of all, made it a reality. Yet she is still pursuing other dreams. “It is very important for me to encourage young people to do what they like and want and not what society asks them to do; a person must please him or herself and not the people around,” she asserts. On a more personal level, Niam wants to devote her time to filmmaking, with her works focusing on social issues. “The issue that is of utmost importance to me is that of children in war, with the general theme of war/peace as the core of my works,” Niam explains.
If you have a dream, it is never late to pursue it. Niam is in filmmaking today, though it is not a decade yet since she first walked into a cinema!
You can watch Super.Full at this link:
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.Voices of Our Future 2013 Assignments: Profiles